A year after a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, no new regulations have even been filed, let alone passed, according to the Texas Tribune. It quotes State Rep. Joe Pickett (D) confirming that “there were none.”
On the evening of April 17, 2013, something started a fire in a seed room at West Fertilizer Co., and eventually 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded with the power of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds. Authorities have still not determined the cause of the fire, nor have they determined if regulatory agencies failed to prevent the accident.
But it is clear that while the plant touched many different agencies, there was no single one in charge of regulating the chemicals it had stored, nor were they required to coordinate with each other. At the federal level, the plant hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985, and the last time it had fined the company was for $30 for a serious violation for storing anhydrous ammonia. It was last inspected by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2011, when it was issued a $10,100 fine for missing placards, transporting anhydrous ammonia in non-specification tanks, and “not having a security plan,” although the plant took corrective action and paid a lower fine. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a $2,300 fine in 2006 for its failure to have a risk management plan that met federal standards, but its report claimed that the plant posed no fire or explosive risk. Although fertilizer facilities are required to report to the Department of Homeless Security (DHS) if they have more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, and West Fertilizer had 270 tons, it failed to do so.
At the state level, the plant did submit a report to the Texas Department of State Health Services, reporting 100,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia and 18,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, although the information wasn’t shared with DHS and just serves as a notification to be used by first responders and the community to plan for emergencies. A 2006 complaint of an ammonia smell triggered an investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), but after it cited the company for failing to get an air quality permit, it didn’t return. While the Office of Texas State Chemist monitors hazardous materials and works on preparedness planning, it only cited the company over labeling and product purity concerns. The state’s Agriculture Department has said it isn’t tasked with regulating fertilizer facilities. State Department of Public Safety officials have testified that the responsibility for ensuring the safe storage of hazardous materials falls to local officials and fire marshals, but while West has a volunteer fire department, it doesn’t have a marshal.
This leaky patchwork of oversight allowed the plant to store high volumes of dangerous chemicals while reportedly going without sprinklers or fire walls. The company is facing federal fines of $118,300 for two dozen serious safety violations, including its lack of an emergency response plan, although the cost of the explosion’s property damage alone is estimated at $100 million.
It may not be surprising that even in the face of this lack of oversight, Texas lawmakers have been reluctant to pass new regulations. Before the explosion, legislators had recommended weakening environmental laws and had already cut the TCEQ’s budget by $305 million, the agency with the longest reach of any to oversee fertilizer plants. The cut reduced its full-time staff by 235. In the wake of the explosion, Gov. Rick Perry (R) said the calls for increased regulation were “premature” and that he was comfortable with the current level of oversight in the state.
While Rep. Joe Pickett told the Tribune that he foresees regulations coming, he also noted that the climate in his state is not favorable.
Meanwhile, the town is considering building another fertilizer plant. And the state has reported that 14,000 facilities in Texas have extremely hazardous materials, with at least 44 that have 10,000 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based explosive materials — West Fertilizer had 540,000 pounds.